AN EMPTY PLACE, Chapter Five - "The Lid of Madness"

Been a bit hasn't it? I'm out of training at work, so that's good news. I'd been kind of dreading putting this chapter up because - although I really like it and it works almost as a short story - formatting it for the blog is going to be a challenge. So if anything looks screwy, I'm working on it.

In another bit of news, the illustrator guy is going to school again so I don't expect to see those for some time.

Here we get into the bowels of the books world, and we begin to pull back the enchanted, blood soaked curtain. 


Chapter Five - The Lid of Madness

L- Darling came to work to a cold office. Dusk was settling on the Accelerated Cities and the depleted light from the thirty-fifth story windows bathed the memory banks in a gray hue. There were seven of them arranged around the workstation terminal, and their fans whirred in harmony with the song of the server behind a tall glass tower in the center of the room.

Empty, Darling thought, Business as usual for Hundun Company.

The reinforced door from the hallway closed behind her. The automatic locking mechanism shunted into place as she moved her hand to the light switch. She paused and breathed the stale air deeply.

Even without the overhead lights the glow of the work station screen was enough to push a spare shadow of her body against the cream colored walls. She considered the silhouette of her arm, thin and withered like a tree branch. She decided not to turn on the lights. Twilight neared, and the spires would light up in brilliant white. She could already see the blue outline of The Cord connecting the distant reaches of the Cities like an electric spider web. Looking up from the street it would be like a cloud of perpetual lightning strikes as boundless energy flowed through them.

Darling turned towards the server. She saw herself reflected below the neck: a headless gray suit covering a slight frame, decorated with the blinking lights of the workstation.

A ghost, she touched her face to make sure it was still attached to her body, that’s what I feel like.

Approaching the screen she took note, not for the first time, of how clean the office was. She had been told that other adepts kept hours in the office but she had never seen a sign of them. No footprints, cigarette butts, dust, no residual moisture from their breath. Not a trace. But that was as it should be. Hundun's code was unshakeable: do not attempt to contact another adept. They had to be invisible, even to each other. There were other rules. To break them meant capture or worse. She had tested them once. The consequences of testing them again were one of the few things she feared over death.

The blank white screen of the workstation brightened as she approached. She stopped and leaned forward over the glowing plane, tilted away from her like an artist's easel. The static of the monitor tingled on her forehead.

What's next? she asked, sending the thought outwards to the monitor, a vibration forming at the peak of her skull and cascading down to her temples. One of the first disciplines of Hundun was telepathy. Trainer One had called it shalespeak, to "honor always the source of our power." The Talus . . . before the Paternach stole it from the world and enslaved it to The Cord.

"To honor it . . . and to remember what we are fighting for," Darling remembered.

She laid her hands on the screen and felt the reverberation through her shoulders and arms, a ripple of pixels flowing away from the tips of her fingers. The white screen went dark. The OS blinked on a moment later. 

Show me scroll one please, Darling directed. Again the tingling waves crawled through her bones as the shalespeaking screen shifted once again. Lines of text and diagrams bubbled up before her.

7000 PERCENT INCREASE ON 091565 - 16:13:04

God, that's huge. Have we located the source of the surge?


Continue to monitor. Open scroll two.

A dozen threats were assessed every day, the scrolls would filter out the noise from the important notes, and it was Darling's job to decipher the melody.

101265 - 07:43:32 - LAST MONITORED
101365 - 14:14:38

Odd . . . But we need to wait on this. Enclosures are dangerous places to be seen in the robes. Is it possible he couldn't get to a hot location to send the signal?


As she suspected. The movement of large squads of Contractors could have kept him underground. Long range signals would be easily detected that far out of the Cities. It didn't mean that all was well, but she could hold out hope the acolyte would come through it.

Okay, final scroll please. The blue bars on the bottom of the screen disappeared with each opened scroll, unfolding and then collapsing back on itself as she discarded it. Recording the information was forbidden; she had to internalize and respond.

As the next scroll opened she was confronted with the photograph of a dead child. Sexless, or at least, of indeterminate sex. Whatever had killed it had wasted its body's soft tissue away in black craters. The corpse lay on a white table, a bright light shining down from above the photographer, whose shadow crept into the bottom of the frame. The skin and sinew that connected the upper arm to the shoulder was gone and only a wilted fragment of bone which looked about to crack remained. The arm itself dangled over the table.


Another photo. This one was of a large hospital ward with black stained bed sheets over decrepit forms. A lone nurse was caught mid-step in the background of the picture, facing away and reaching for a door, her white smock turned gray.

Next, please.

She flipped through them quickly, barely giving herself time to bring her eyes into focus, careful not to look away but refusing to see.

That's enough.

ATTACHED SCROLL, SAVED - 032465 - 4:31:54

". . . plague spreads . . . verse area-
. . . hit at once . . . appears . . .
with cutting us . . . The Cord. Now star
. . . lack of . . .-sh wat- . . . winter
was the worst . . . sending courier for
the root."

The recording crackled with surges of static obscuring most of what the voice said. The origin of the message was outside Porton, sent by an older man with a brutal and insistent tone pulsing through the noise. Darling imagined he must be an Agrat from the Inner Council. She didn't recognize his voice. It had been at least nine months since she'd heard from the cell, and she feared that a number of them had perished in the plague. A hot flush rose on her chest - sweat stinging between her blouse and breasts - her breath caught as she tried to stifle her moan. Pressure in her sinuses heavy between her eyes struck tears from the corners. These people were friends of hers. She had been one of them, once, in another life before she knew of her talent.

But what had shattered her composure, a composure she kept even in quiet moments alone, was the easy utterance of the most sacred secret of Hundun.

The root . . . the need was desperate indeed if they dared to send this, even encoded, to the rogue satellites.
Worse, the root was dying. The Agrat council could not have known. Their courier was running out of time.
The scrolls had developed a thousand theses: Perhaps it had been too long severed from the Talus, or Hundun itself had overtaxed it, or the years of modifications had slowly withered away its power. The result was the same. She had felt it over the last year, the dwindling intensity when she was in the root's presence. Her need to return to it came quicker. The shales dimmed as the energy drained. She was losing clarity when she traveled, like being spun in a fog and the risk was growing of becoming lost. Of being cut from her physical body. This did not pain her. It was a good excuse – an excuse she'd been looking for - to stay away from the shales and the pain of coming back.

Leaning on the screen with the static from the end of the transmission still looping in her brain, she felt her hands begin to warm. The monitor had heated abnormally. She wiped her moist eyes with the cuff of her jacket. A small pool of tears had fallen on the workstation and the OS was automatically cleaning its hardware. 

Sorry, Darling sniffed and placed her hands on the screen again.


Yeah, you're right. She knew this, but the OS was not interpreting her tears, just reacting to them. But its directive was enough to set her shoulders straight and continue with her duty: the next course of action is going to be investigating the Cord surges. The other thing - I guess we have to wait on that too?


I know. And make sure you scroll it up if that Acolyte checks in.


There was something else. A stray thread that she snipped at but which she couldn't pluck. Each time her mind moved towards it the disturbance of her effort would send the thought billowing away. She tracked back through the scrolls, even listened to the hazy plea from the council again, to seek out the missing strand.

If I hadn't lost my cool, she prodded herself, I would have caught it. Swearing under her breath she examined every excruciating detail of the scrolls. She pulled up archival material in the hopes that a faded memory was somehow trying to connect with these events. Faded photos, ancient newspaper stories, relics of a suppressed history - before the Paternach secured their dominance on the most abundant energy resource in existence. Errata on Talus specimens, statistical data on its burn rate, the max VA for the first Talus Cord Array, the TW of the latest Array over its first six months of operation, Hundun's analysis on its CMU ops and its effectiveness on the Paternach's mining operations . . . all of these she scoured and more, but to no avail. 

When she finally was able to sluice the tail of the thought from its muddy entrenchment she was combing through the final report on the last surge recorded by Hundun Sensors.

A report filed by Adept Two.

Why was the Agrat scroll reassigned to me? She bit her lip, careful not to congratulate herself prematurely in case it meant nothing.


The cold admission of the OS, the rigid white letters of the word "compromised", sent a pang of fear through her. Like the mechanical peck of a carrion bird picking at flesh, the OS continued without awaiting a directed response from its operator:


Defection. She had never heard of it, did not think it was possible, never dared to dream it. How probable are each of these predictions?

54.1 - DEATH
. . .

Can I access that information?


What could she do? Her hands were warm and moist against the monitor. The subtle reverberations coursing through her arms, shoulders, and neck, had exhausted her. She removed her hands, severing her link with the OS, the pressure of the telepathic contact seeping away like a diver resurfacing from the bottom of the sea. The vibrations, like static when tearing off a wool coat, shed away.

Always the fog followed an exercise of shalespeak - sterile and stinging her mind into numbness - though not as crushing as a return from the shales themselves. A whitish pulp in front of her eyes, residue of the psychic exertion, obscured her sight and there was a sensation of fluid filling her ears. It was the ether, the byproduct of her shalespeaking. Not so much this time, just a wet clogging feeling that evaporated quickly, not like the shalestep.

Too emotional, she thought, Tires me out . . .

She couldn't maintain her balance. Her mind went blank. When she was able to open her eyes again a ringing filled her head. A whine echoed in her skull. It slowly clarified into the familiar and steady rhythm of her cell phone. She felt the carpet under her hands thinking the phone had fallen from her pocket in her daze. But as the ring sharpened in her senses, she scoffed at herself. She slapped her chest and felt the phones oblong form against her ribs, inside her coat. Fishing it out, she answered to a swath of distortion as a voice exhaled in a desperate greeting.

"Hello?" the voice said.


"It's so bad. I think he's going to die."

"Who is this, who's dying?"

"Holm. Ah-" a heavy slurping sound distracted the voice: a girl. Darling stood, and even though she knew it was too soon to shalespeak with the OS again, she planted her free hand on the screen. The numbness in her arm shot back down it like an electric circuit closing. A flash of pink light from the screen almost sent her down to the floor again. 

Search Holm, she was able to squeeze the thought out. It tumbled in vibrations down her arm and the screen absorbed it. She forced herself to croak out another question – this one for the girl on the phone.
"How did you get this number?" Darling asked. Panicked squealing was the only response, and then distant words like the phone had fallen away from the girl's face.

"Oh! - Oh it's disgusting . . . get off of me!"



"Uh, the number," the girl said having fended off whatever was attacking her, "It was the man in the mask. He said you could help us." The girl must have muffled a sob because Darling could hear her choke out wet coughs away from the receiver.

"I can. Where are you?"

"I- It's a shuttle terminal. We . . . it's the end of the orange line I think. I've never been here before."

"What's wrong with Holm?" Darling asked as she accessed a map of the shuttle grid. There was a Hundun safe house - just a block and a half away.

"Oh dear." The girl almost laughed, despondent and weary, "You'll just have to see for yourself."

"I'm going to help you. But you have to listen close . . ."


Sweat cooled on her chest and back. The hallway's chill air wrapped her in a twisting shiver. Her vision blurred, her brain clouded, the ether clogged her ears and took a long time to drain. Darling was weak.
Yet the call demanded Darling's attention: they had contacted an acolyte, or an acolyte had contacted them, and had given them her phone number. She couldn't be sure how the acolyte would have her number. Something was organizing itself around her, a larger mystery that Hundun was slow to reveal. It was their way. A nagging fear bit deeply into the river of her mind like a needling fish. She was already playing catch up to the other players, who drifted upstream as she struggled against an invisible current. Even now in the low blue light of the hallway she struggled to commit to a plan. She took a few deep breaths and resisted the urge to close her eyes.

She walked to the elevator at the end of the hall. She was determined to know her next move before its doors slipped shut behind her.

She had told the girl, Tad she said her name was, to take Aegis to the safe house; a dress shop that Darling had used before. In truth, it was unlikely that the girl could carry a wounded man up a terminal staircase, across the street, and around the corner without being picked up by the Contractors, or at least spotted by a SHEREF SS-B. The latter would be worse for Hundun because the surveillance bots could record the safe house location; but neither was good news for the outsiders.

What if I've made a mistake? Darling thought as she depressed the down button on the elevator's console, I can't trust them.

The orange indicators were slow to engage above the black fiberglass door, and she saw herself with her arms crossed under them as they blinked on. Her stoic face with a sharp lined nose between delicate strawberry eyebrows and the piercing green eyes uncloaked under them. She closed her eyes to avoid staring at the puffy bags under them – the inevitable result whenever she dropped her guard, let her emotions overrun her discipline. But she almost fell asleep on her feet and looked again. Her light hair swooped away from her forehead and barely covered her ears. She wiped a shine of sweat from her forehead. She dropped her arms to her side so her thin elbows were no longer visible through her sheer coat. She looked crumpled and worn. She thought that she needed a shower and a fresh set of steamed clothes.

Tired, that's how I look. Just like I feel. She considered this truth until the light blinked off of floor four, then: still thirty one more to go. She begged the elevator to hurry and tapped her foot on the floor.
The desperation in Tad's voice was hard to dismiss. Aegis was another matter. She would know at once if he carried the athame. And they'd seen the acolyte. Had he given up Aegis' identity as well as Darling's?
This thought brought a sudden cloud of realization over her. The acolyte who was missing was from enclosure 16-C. The orange shuttle used to run to that enclosure, she was sure.

It was possible that Aegis had killed him. It could have been done without the girl's knowledge. If Aegis had gone rogue then she was in luck: he would be helpless to her interrogation. She could extract what had turned him, and what he knew about his abandoned case – the plague.

From the description the girl gave of what was coming out of him, Darling hoped he lived so she might have that chance.

The noise of the elevator intensified as the light for the thirty-forth floor was extinguished. A low ding announced its arrival as the thirty-fifth floor light buzzed and flickered. The doors opened from the center outward splitting her reflection. She was feeling better. The sickness was leaving her save for a hardness in her fingertips. She entered the velvet padded box and engaged the button for the lobby.

She leaned back and closed her eyes again. She thought she might catch a few moments of rest, maybe a minute, as the elevator descended. She contemplated approaching the shales.

If she was going to help this Aegis she needed to traverse the great mental plane of the Talus and bathe in its silvery reservoirs. She'd call on the veiled spirits of the infinite plateaus and ask for their help. It was a journey that might take a blink of an eye for her body, but was as exhausting and as long as a pilgrimage for her mind. Shalestepping. Preparing her mind for the transformation from this world to the other had become a simple exercise, far easier than the final leap across or the return to the known world. To clear her thoughts she'd focus on a sea of black - letting the images that came fade and die to darkness - accepting the noises of the world like a waterfall's roar, and then push her senses through until they resided in that thunder - the black sea all around her. Then she would let the outline of a door form. Drawing it with the crystalline edge of her focus from the bottom left corner up and around and back to the first point. A yellow blazing line like the fire behind an eclipse but in a rectangle. The black sea would reflect its frothing waves . . . the etching complete, the door turns. Not as if from a hinge as a real door would but from its center, horizontally, the fiery edge shoots out towards her, carrying the warmth of steam. Slow, at first, and then faster, until it is a blur, a single alternating frame of light and then darkness. She reaches for the sliver; awe and dread are one as she slides toward the threshold . . .

She opened her eyes.

Darling had gone too close. Too weak. If she had kept on, her mind would slip through and enter the shales. Blind at first, the alien terrain would gradually reveal itself to her, as if waking from the haze of a dream - but more visceral, a brilliant sensorium. The elevator rocked almost imperceptibly under her feet and she instinctively looked down at her beige pumps as if her balance had been threatened. The carriage creaked and Darling felt her stomach drop and her knees grow weak. Their descent was slowing. The light for the fifth floor activated and a warbling bell was struck as the elevator ground to a halt. She expected the doors to open any minute and let in a custodian or a brand-man who was working late. Most of the building above the tenth floor was empty save for Hundun. Some of the lower floors were rented to cosmetic firms, branding agencies, or whatever.

The door opened and she looked out onto the floor. A newsstand in the lobby had the brand-boxes for the day and her eyes stopped on a flashing headline: STEWARD BRAVES TSUNAMI, WINS CUP scrolled across the flat paneled box. The garishly colored words alternated with a five or six second video of the surfing champion Steward on a huge tidal wave. But there seemed to be no one awaiting the elevator.

Probably this old contraption is ready to fall apart, she thought, These mid-century buildings are death traps.

But there was someone. A man slipped into view from the edge of the door, appearing suddenly and startling her.

"Oh, excuse me," he said. He was middle-aged with a plain face. A large flat upper lip was visible over his coat collar, which was turned up and covered his chin. The man swallowed and the skin over his Adam's apple contracted. He coughed and cleared his throat, covering his lips and nose with a tiny gloved hand.

"No problem. Working late?" said Darling. There was something wrong with him. He wore a deep black rain slicker cinched tight around his long torso. He nodded slightly at Darling's polite question and pushed the button for the parking ramp: "BB". He kept his back turned to her and stood with his hands in his coat pockets. She saw his reflection in front of hers, and though the lights above them threw his visage into shadow, she thought she saw him smile. The man began to hum a lazy off-key tune. The elevator started to move again.

"And you?" the man said.

"Me . . . me what?"

"Are you working late?" he said. He sounded amused with himself, as if he had just told a very funny joke.

Then Darling saw through his disguise. His true form beyond the impression on her vision, hidden and grotesque. The coat was not of fabric but stiff and thick and scaled like a turtle's shell. He had no legs under the coat, just a smudge, a shadow but a shade darker, obliterating all light. Like a portion of her eyes were blotted with ink as she looked on him. He floated on this black cloud.

"What the hell," she said. Her hand formed into a fist. The athame would come. But in that same moment the legless man turned to her. The floating mist billowed up around his arms and elbows. His hands disappeared. Darling tried to see his face but it was as a shifting fume. The thing spoke at her but the sound came from everywhere.

"The contract is broken," it said in a calm voice with the sharpness of sulfur, "And our connection severed."

Darling tried to speak but she choked on the cloud billowing up around the man. The viscous smoke clogged her mouth, her throat; oozed into her lungs like a tar. Her eyes were teary slivers. She wanted to ask, "what connection . . . what contract?" It must have heard her anyway.

"First the traitor does not cooperate. A deal had been brokered. We must terminate all associates of the interfering agency. We are cleaning up!" It grinned and let its tendrils seep into her body. The words were a drumming echo in her brain: "Cleaning up! Cleaning up! Cleaning Up!"

She fell to her knees. There was a dim line through the swarming smoke . . . the edge of its long coat. Her chest cinched. A wheeze let the last air out from her lungs. Asphyxiation. She fell and saw a bright yellow sunburst in her left eye, it darkened like a drop of water on paper, and she reached out with a limp finger to touch the edge of the legless man's coat. The athame flared.


The black sea . . . the door . . . the silver light . . . that small cut into the demon is all she needs . . . stepping into the shales.

The sputum of the legless one fills all spaces around her. It exists here, too, perhaps primarily, in the shalescape. She is carried on the bare thread of air wheezing out of her lungs into the black cloud - through it and its shimmering particles. She is in shaleform: hard as ice and formless as vapor. She feels the demon's madness, no center, no secret heart, just dark indifference. The emptiness is infinite, porous as the hive, soundless as space. It repels her and yet she holds fast to the surface. As she connects to its blank mentality her own is snuffed in an instant. Her shaleform hurdles into the globular abyss of the legless one. It gurgles and moans as she disappears.

But her athame – bound to her even in the shales – alights. Though shrouded and at the brink of annihilation, the blade's edge cuts a white flame into the legless one, a line that burns like a star and carries her deep into its cavernous recesses.

Heat is like a molten flow all around her. Shifting sand cascades through her hair and scours the soft places of her flesh.

No flesh, Darling, remember where you are, the voice of the adept is a constant drum in her hollow head, Remember that we are in this together.

But the shaleform is suffocating.

Outside - that's happening in the world. You are on top of a dune.

And she is. The sand crusts around the corners of her mouth and stings her eyes. Streams of it run out of her nose. Caked in the back of her throat she wretches out red clumps that pile like a cluster of grapes. Her torso wracks and then stills. Rolling onto her back she sees the towering crags of toothy mountains. The sand is moving under her and she sits up, naked and burning. The air is filled with a scathing dust and the horizon is a dark wall of stone. At once she perceives she is trapped in a gigantic bowl, funneling out at its center. The ground is moving, slipping from under her, a tempestuous quake that rattles her jaw. She scrambles to stand but the cascading sand is slick so she bounds in a half crouch outwards towards the gray ring of stone in the distance. Each time the sole of her bare foot touches down, a shelf of sand falls away into the widening pit. The smell of cooking meat wafts up to her as she leaps away again. Her hands are blistered and purple, and before she lands she hesitates, putting them out in front of her. Landing once, she looks back at the gaping portal; the deafening roar emitted from it thrums her ears like fists at her temples. The devouring maw of nothingness grows. She turns away and scuttles on her hands and knees. Without warning she reaches the outer rim of the great draining circle. At one moment the peaks of those looming mountains were as untouchable as the stars, and now she puts her mangled hands and fire-stripped flesh on the cold stone foundation. The last tremor of dust sucks into the expanding void.

The rock face is like steel, a wall of gray ice sinister in its magnitude. She gazes up its length and cannot see the top. She looks to the left and right and can find no edge. Her breasts are flat like saucers against the surface. The emptiness presses against her back like a heavy blanket. She feels the pull. Her arms stretch with the speed of starlight in an instant to the horizon. Her head flows on the creaking river, impossible ripples coaxing her neck to the oppressing peak, but still the wall continues. Disappearing down into the darkness beyond the foundation her ankles and calves drip away like seething magma off an iceberg. The shaleform cannot keep it together.

The whole body separates from itself, skin divorcing skin, bone and muscle and blood evacuating like cloud bursts into a pink and red sea on the stone. Steaming viscera pours out of her middle and liquefies as it touches the stone. Then the bones lose their shape and are stripped of the tendons and cartilage turns to dust and falls like snow into the soupy pool that was the shaleform. But her vision remains.

Is the stone the Talus? Why does it devour me? I can see markings in the stone as I become one with it.
Follow the current, she hears herself speak even as the last ridge of flesh from her ear lobes is swallowed by the obelisk, Take ease with the suppleness of your sail. The stone jumps like a single wave on an ocean and then more rapidly as the blanket of gravity unravels. She loses the tether of perception.

The current . . .

She hears it again. A shard of light bounces in space - somewhere she cannot focus - the voice seems to come from the shard.

When her vision rights the shard is clearly a slice of the moon high over a solid sea. It glows uniformly over raging waves. The froth that was her flesh solidifies into an oozing raft, the soft fibers fusing on the thawed wall which was sea. She feels a blast of wind through her hair. One hand reaches up to touch the flowing locks. Hard, calcified like a statue. Her tongue runs over salty lips. She again looks to the moon.

But it is not the moon.

It is the athame. She holds it up – her arm barred. It is a brilliant beacon that steadies the stone river as the turbulence comes under its light.

A single mind. Stretching forever. They call it The Lid.

What is its source?

A deep place. It means madness if we approach. Remember the word of escape.

The word?


The voice is as clear as lips to her ear, a clarion kiss, a desperate intimacy to obscure their intention from the demon's mind. She keeps her eyes on the athame and its beam pouring down, its blade the sluicing sail of white through deep black.

Can we destroy this monster?

Only when we surrender to its visions.

Surrender? Won't we die?

The Legless Ones live in the nest of the accuser and follow the law of guilt . . . Ssh! It listens!

The voice halts. The sound of rushing water replaces it and she feels it on her body cold and numbing. The shaleform trains her eyes on the athame and its wake in the icy waters ahead. 

The roar of water and its breath-stealing spray fills her head. She looks down at the raft. She sees the outline of her skull as it melted away. And there, her eyes, deformed and stretched wide.

The mist - the black swarm - she feels it around her. A wisp of smoke, charred tendrils, coils around the athame. She waves the dagger in fear, trying to dispel the cloud. But then the beam shivers and fails and the stone river moves in a great gray wave to swallow the raft. The shaleform covers her head with her hands. The athame darkens and is still.


The flare of light from the dagger fills an orb three times her size. It is colored red by the lens of the orb. She huddles arms over knees with the burning athame torch held out in front of her. She looks out with darting eyes. She unravels herself and holds the red flame out, scanning the circumference of the black orb, slinking forward the orb spins like a ball of yarn pawed by a cat. There is no crack, no hint of a doorway. She puts her forehead on the transparent surface, holding the light behind her so that its glare does not interfere with her gaze outside the orb. It doesn't matter. There is nothing.

All she sees is sick distortion of her own form. The orb shows a purplish abstraction of her body, thin and wasting, her face sagging and gaunt. She brings the burning knife forward to illuminate the image. The firebrand is mirrored in her eyes and her true form is shown. Her face is drawn tight and alert under her long yellow hair, her forehead trembling with stark anticipation, the white blaze like a blizzard on her clear lenses. She watches it in her eye, expressed again on the orb, as she swings the weapon over her head. The flame consumes her hand in a numbing flare. Then the blade begins its descent, slow, a sun cresting a great hill. Quick as gravity her pale arm flexes, the tendons in her elbow throbbing as it bends to connect the athame to the orb.

The dagger stops. Her arm is frozen by an unseen force. The tip of the blade touches the orb and the fire is snuffed out. A note, pitched high at the edge of sensing, screams out from the orb. A crack crawls in twisting branches along the orb's surface. The orb shatters and the void sprawls out around her. She cannot move. She is in something's grip, suspended in the air.

Hands gray and small like children's hands are on her thighs and her back holding her prostrate. Her wrists are clamped by the inhuman strength of these tiny fingers. They push her forward through the darkness. They snap in a dissonant rhythm and she sees that the digits have no nails, just soft flapping protuberances that move her brutally through their own mass. They bring her to the Lid. They hold her up and clap in a resounding wave. The hands present her before a massive spherical body with a thousand – numberless - arms with which to grapple and manipulate her. The sphere spurts fluid from the horizontal slit of its lid, a green translucent mucus, foaming as it hits the flesh of its arms. Its shape is not constant, but contracting and deforming before her, one portion of its body becomes inflamed as another emits a hissing gas and deflates. The shaleform squirms as the hands tighten their grip.

The Lid begins to open and she can see a sliver of a pupil underneath the oozing mucus. She turns her head away, but a pair of larger hands rights her head with a mechanical cruelty. She closes her eyes just as the bottom rim of the thing's cornea is shown. It is like the face of all the people she has known. Those she left behind.


"Don't you remember your old friends?" She does not open her eyes to see how it speaks. But its voice comes from the sphere deep and wet like blood bubbling in the back of a throat.

"Yes. Make them go away."

"We can't do that. We are the last who remember the good old times. Should we let them rot as you have? How dishonest, turning your back on them, how cold."

"Ssh!" she says. She spits at the thing, her eyes still closed tight and desperate. She hears other voices underneath the demon's. She recognizes them. It is laughing but the laughter is made from their tormented cries. She tries to speak a spell but stutters and a whimper escapes her lips instead.

"You want to quiet the past. Shed the skin of the person you once were? That is not possible. It is the traitor that has brought us to this moment," speaks the Lid. The bitter stench of its breath invades her senses - all consuming. Bile rises in her esophagus and tears sting her eyes.

Once more she tries to utter the word.

"Sekmet!" she blurts almost unintelligibly. Her mouth can only just articulate the syllables.

The hands release her. The demon gurgles with spite.

"Soon all your words will fail."

She dares to open her eyes a sliver. She sees the filthy shower of black ash as the hands disintegrate like dandelion seeds in the breeze. Fail, the demon says; but for now the spell has freed her. She unlatches. She lets the shaleform fold in on itself. A malleable knot of ether binding itself tight. It vanishes.

A thump. Another one. Then another. The shalescape dwindles. A thump. Again. Like a tin can stomped repeatedly.


The athame's handle was bone-cold under Darling's shaking palm. Her cheek itched on the dusty carpet of the elevator. She tried to open her eyes but the pain stopped her, a pang and flash of red like seeping blood. She tried to push herself up but her arms were too weak. So she rolled carefully onto her side as shocks wracked her body in erratic seizures: her shoulder, the middle of her left thigh, the bottom of her feet. The athame dragged a line in the matted carpet, a dark maroon scar in the dull pink threads, as she raised it up off the ground. She struck it hard into the floor and used it as leverage to lift herself. 

The constant beat, the battle drum that welcomed her home from the shales and her encounter with the demon, was just the elevator door returning on a tipped ashcan. Its lid had loosened and spilled sand and a film of ash all over the elevator compartment. She tasted it on her tongue. But underneath the ash was the carcass of the demon. Splattered on the padded walls like shit in a horse stall, with the smell of animal bones burnt to a cinder. She turned away from the mess.

"Think I'll take the stairs now," she said to herself, delirious from the shock of the attempt on her. She jumped at the sound of her own voice, cracking and high like a child's. 

Aright again Darling leaned against the cushions and raised a trembling finger to the button marked "OPEN". Darling held the athame flat in her palm and focused on its form. The vibration from her brain cascaded into her arm, to her hand, and the blade dissolved into a thick, clear fluid. As the ethereal syrup dripped through the cracks of her fingers, the fluid itself dissipated.

She remembered the toil of her shaleform, how close she had come to madness if it had failed her, and thanked Trainer One silently for his teachings. 

She shambled into the vacant fifth floor lobby, the brand-boxes still splashed out their glaring images. As she walked she straightened her wrinkled blouse and buttoned the top button on her jacket. Pressure in her head, pressure building since her return from the other world, finally popped. She held her neck and tried to rub away the encroaching soreness. A wetness covered her hand.

The fluid poured from her ears. She pulled her hand away from her neck so she could see it before it vanished. It drained out in a flow and congealed into a dark mass in her hair. There was a lot of the stuff.

Tired. Need to rest soon . . . but I've got to find Holm Aegis.

The stairs spiraled down as if enticing her to sleep, but when she hit the gray steel door marked "EXIT" with her forearms, the flood of humanity beyond sharpened her senses again.

Night was ending. Somewhere beyond the inherent haze of light and noise that surrounded the city a moon was riding the aging night to dawn. Darling couldn't see it over the impossible heights of the spires, or through the blue haze of the Cord, but she knew it was there. She wouldn't even turn her head upwards to the distant mountain peaks for a fleeting glimpse if she could. The Accelerated Cities had a way of washing out the hoped-for simple pleasures. The people who lived in its humming plenty, such as there was in the world shaped by Paternach, were robbed of the desire. For Darling, and the rest of them who may have once dreamed of freedom, the natural world was too distant and too transformed to dwell on as a source of beauty . . . or hope. Still there was always a chance, either through a weather anomaly or the indeterminate vagaries of the universe, that it would press through the Cities white cerement. The world, like a chill, would impress itself on the Cities' denizens and for a moment efface their dull countenances. Like war would have mobilized them in the past, if all wars hadn't already been lost or won. Like the secret war that mobilized Darling. 

What am I thinking? Darling stopped herself at the corner of two streets, I need to focus.

The fluid had ceased its evacuation from her ears and left the telltale hollowness after extended periods in shaleform. Traces of the stuff clung to her - the nape of her neck, the skin between her fingers - she felt it at her hairline like a cobweb or veil. Her mind wandered free among those tendrils, strand to strand, each a compounding distraction on the delicate procedure of walking, standing upright, staying awake.

A beaten old mailbox long abandoned to the elements stood under a bleary patch of light from a street lamp. The corner was otherwise dark. Darling leaned for a moment on the blue postal box, landmark to a bygone time, as a pair of pedestrians hustled away from the commotion on the opposite corner of the street. They were young and blond and wore singleton jumpsuits in orange and navy, not so different from what other teens wore. That would change in a month or two at best – Bank Two was always swapping designs on the brand-boxes to keep the youth spending.

No matter. She smiled but her eyes dropped in a wince as the young people nodded as they passed, The strangers will be nothing like them, they have to be. 

Darling shook her head and ran a hand over her hair.

She clucked her tongue as she observed the scene. Across the street, underneath a partially demolished four story mega-park with random chunks of concrete at its base, was the shuttle terminal. The Contractors had it under lock-down. The street was mostly abandoned, save the odd youth returning home after a night of revelry, and all avoided the terminal entrance. At the top of the tunnel were six armored guards in riot gear. Further down the stairs Darling could just see the fedora capped heads of the investigators. Up above, under the lowest aerial Cord struts buzzed a gaggle of SS-Bots. They fluttered over the stairs and illuminated the work of the Contractors below them with stark beams of light. Two armored vehicles buttressed the entrance, their heavy, treaded tires advanced to the wall of the mega-park to impede foot traffic. The occasional car slowed as it passed the scene then quickly sped off again as the SS-Bots immediately directed their attention to them, curious and accusing.

If they've been captured . . . Darling didn't let herself complete the thought. To her right, across the street that ran behind the terminal and the car park, and then again to the right, was the dress shop. It was tiny and innocuous and tucked into a dead-end between a block-sized museum and a commercial spire. The windows were boarded and the only access would be through the ancient alley in the back, unless the fugitives had disturbed them. Darling gauged her path. She'd need to slip past the right-most AV and the listless guards wandering nearby. She smelt her sweat sticky over her whole body.

Darling turned up the collar on her jacket, covering her blouse that had become wrinkled and filthy from the attack in the elevator as much as she could. She carefully pulled a folded piece of gray cloth from her pocket. The mask shook and shriveled at her touch. She unfolded the cloth and ran it over her face like she was wiping it clean. The first rule of invisibility could be kept when no one knew your true face.

The curb into the street was square and sharp. The road was damp from the spring sweepers. The white pavement sparkled even in the darkness of the early hour. She took a breath and a big step away from the old mailbox, pushing off of it with her hand to reinforce her determination. The SS-Bots rattled overhead and one of their beams shone down on her. She looked up at it and blinked and raising her hand over her eyes. The cylindrical bodies of the Bots spun underneath their sensor heads soundlessly - it was the short helicopter blades that cried out in sharp spurts of speed - approaching a vehicle, training their mindless eyes at pedestrians, swarming in dumb surveillance. When Darling cleared her eyes of the white blindness she was nearly on top of the shuttle terminal stairs. A guard set his riot shield in a defensive position.

"Okay lady, back it up, this is a crime scene," said the guard, gruff and weary. It was a young woman's voice. Probably recently out of the Contractor Draft Academy, without the discipline of the veterans who had instigated the financiers' riot years ago.

"Sorry, I've gotta catch my train," said Darling. She feigned searching her pockets for a shuttle card.

"Citizen." The guard's shield lowered a little, "Are you sick or something?"

Darling shook her head and stepped forward with a random scrap of paper clutched in her fingers, scrounged up from the corner of her jacket pocket.

"You see, my train leaves in two minutes . . ." she waved the paper in front of the guard's face plate. The adept glanced down the stairs. The plain-clothes investigators were huddled around something: a long black pipe of some kind, wider at one end. One of the detectives poked at it with an outstretched pen.

Holy shit. It moved! Darling swore to herself.

"Move on citizen, there's not going to be a train tonight," the guard said. She pushed her shield forward roughly and knocked Darling on her heels.

Two SS-Bots zoomed into position at the guard's flanks. Darling, stealing one more look onto the long slope of stairs, turned and walked away. She was satisfied. She had seen what she needed: scrawling up the stairs from the dead limb was a trail of blood. It faded a few feet from where the investigators crouched, but she could see it again, underneath the tire of one of the AVs. Curved slashes like paint splashed from a brush.

The trail headed towards the dress shop.


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